Initial Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching

So in between crippling bouts of depression, I am reminded that I am still a philosopher with a job to do. As a result, I am doing my best to maintain a rigorous reading schedule, and to contemplate the literature and develop cogent ideas to submit for further consideration. Included in the heavier readings that I have to evaluate is a pleasantly “light” addition in the Tao Te Ching. The following are a few thoughts and first impressions from the first 10 chapters.

I’ll begin by noting the very strange style of writing that the Tao presents to the reader immediately. It is apparent that clarity is not especially important to the author. The text is very open to interpretation, and does not seem to come to “conclusions”, rather, it makes a series of open-ended assertions about things, and leaves the intent of the passage to be subjectively determined by the reader. At least this is the view of the text that I have developed so far.

I am immediately struck by the notion that there is a concept at work in the Tao that cannot be verbally expressed. This of course leaves open the prospect of communicating the concepts at work through other means, but it is not immediately apparent what those means would be. Naturally, we would assume that evocative means would be the next appropriate method because the implication is that one cannot simply transfer understanding of the Tao from one to another, but rather that the understanding must arise from within. In a way, this could be similar to the Socratic method of presenting the “building blocks” of understanding to the student, but making the student order the blocks such that they build their own understanding out of the constituent pieces of information.

Next comes the outrageous claim of chapter 1, specifically the claim “ex nihil omnia,” or “from nothing comes everything.” It is a widely accepted philosophical maxim in Western traditions that “ex nihilo nihil fit,” or “from nothing, nothing comes.” It is unclear what kind of “nothing” the author is referring to; if the “nothing” here is the total lack of any thing, and that existence comes spontaneously from literal nothingness, then the view of ontological nihilism has great weight in rejecting these claims.

On the other hand, if the view being advanced is that, from an apparent or suggested lack of meaning or purpose in life, one finds life’s meaning or purpose, then the claims made here seem to reject notions found in existential nihilism. In fact, Schopenhauer may actually agree with the Tao’s claims based on his idea that reducing one’s desires and emotions to the minimal levels possible are the most effective way of mitigating the occurrence of suffering in one’s life. It is, however, unclear thus far what kind of “nothing” is being referred to.

That said, I think I’ll return to my recent habit of obsessively listening to Bring Me the Horizon, and City and Colour. Whiskey soon to follow…

Yours in Contemplation,
Kierkegaard

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About facedownphilosophy

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2 Responses to Initial Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Tao Te Ching is a breath of fresh air after reading too much analytic philosophy.

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